Political Polarization and Public Health

This article was originally published in our Fall 2020 print issue.

The American political environment over the past decade or so has become increasingly more volatile and delicate. With the rise of disinformation campaigns and increasing distrust of people with different political beliefs of our own, our country’s political system doesn’t function properly. One doesn’t have to look farther than the 2020 Presidential Debates. In the first debate, rather than discussing meaningful policy ideas, former Vice President Joe Biden and incumbent President Donald Trump instead engaged in a verbal shouting match with insults thrown. This political polarization and the associated tribalism has massively impacted the United States’ ability to adequately respond to and mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Political polarization is the political distance separating partisans, and it has only grown since 1994, according to the Pew Research Center. However, polarization in our political system has been around since the 1960s, when conservative Southern Democrats started to see their party drift away from their beliefs and ideals, as UC Berkeley Political Science professor Eric Schickler notes. He also said that around this time, political scientists were calling on the parties to be more “responsible,” but their opinion was largely disregarded by the national Democratic and Republican parties. There are a number of reasons as to why we perceive the other side as “the enemy” but some of the main causes include a decline of journalistic responsibility, growing racial and religious diversity, geographical sorting (wanting to live in areas with people that think like us and have similar beliefs), and increasing implementation of binary thinking (either/or), motivating logic (trying to fit evidence to a narrative), and seeking approval from our “tribe”. 

More specifically, tribalism, or our predisposition towards protecting a group we are a part of, or “tribe”, is one of the main factors that is pulling liberals from conservatives and inciting mutual hatred leading to our political polarization. 

At its very core, tribalism is a psychological survival instinct wired in our brain from our beginnings, as noted by Terri Bimes, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. There is inherent safety in having others to “watch your back” whether it be on a night out on the town or out in the wilderness. This advantage is so highly sought after, that we are willing to do anything to maintain our connection with our “tribe”. This includes conforming to ideas set out by leaders of the group, as Christopher Gade, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley notes: “Conformity can take many forms and one of the most common mechanisms by which it’s achieved is through something called public compliance, where members of a group will subscribe to ideas to show allegiance to their group.” This same phenomenon manifests itself with political parties and regular voters who may be scared to be characterized as unfaithful to their party. 

These attitudes have severe consequences for policy formation and for legislation, especially when it comes to issues that require a quick and strong response. One prominent example of political dysfunction is the government’s response to COVID-19, and how tribalistic attitudes have hampered the country’s response to COVID-19. With 6.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and counting, the United States has one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, partly because of an inadequate federal government response

However, it would be inaccurate to blame the United States’ failure to contain the virus entirely on the federal level, as the population is also partially to blame for the spread of the virus. There are a plethora of steps that can be taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including avoiding crowded spaces, sanitizing surfaces that are frequently touched, and wearing a mask. Wearing a mask can prevent the transmission of your own microscopic droplets while also preventing other respiratory droplets that may contain coronavirus particles from entering your nose and mouth. Mask-wearing in the United States, unfortunately, has fallen prey to tribalism and political tendencies. Democratic governors have largely put in place widespread mask mandates, while their Republican governors have been hesitant to institute those same orders, cognizant of the fact that their constituents see masks as an infringement of their civil liberties. With this, citizens of both parties have adopted their various party’s positions on wearing masks, in accordance with our tribalistic tendencies that are increasingly taking over our everyday lives. In this way, refusing to acknowledge the fact that this crisis is about the human race rather than a certain political party, we have allowed the United States to make the pandemic another partisan issue. In this sense, by allowing basic public health and safety to be overshadowed by our political tribes and our tribalistic attitudes, as a country, we have lost ourselves. 

All hope is not lost. There are still politicians and candidates on both sides of the aisle that are fed up with the divisive nature of our politics, especially when it comes to tackling large, nonpartisan problems like the COVID-19 pandemic. While political polarization is a large problem in our country, it is not one we cannot overcome. It will require blood, sweat, and tears to purposefully seek out those with a different political view in order to start a dialogue about where our country should be headed. It will require us all to try and understand people’s perspectives. It will require us to show up at the polls and on the streets to demand legislation that would dilute the influence of dark money in politics, eliminate gerrymandering and voter suppression, and fundamentally reshape the way elections are run. Most importantly, it requires us to have hope that we can change our country’s political climate for the better.